A city bus tour during summer as a seven-year-old. Distinct memories of grand, sand-coloured buildings that captured the light - always white and shining where the sun hits them on a clear day. It was a fun day; historic spaces have always felt alive - a residual hum in the stone, perhaps.
It’s almost forty years later. A quick journey by bus from outer London. It’s that high street again, and I am tickled. I have time to spare before we all meet. The same, gentle bustle, even though the cobbled alleys I take are mostly unpeopled. It’s in the air, of folk going about their day with a purpose and intent.
I’d dipped in and out of the recommended reading. I had an imagining of the place from books and films, and they all seem to be centred in the twenties and thirties. Wodehouse, Oxford bags like Bowie wore, and the Brideshead Revisited chaps. But Oxford’s history is way more mucky than that.
As a relatively new team member of UP THERE, EVERYWHERE, I’ve met a few cohorts before the event. Professional communicators have the chatty gene. People who like people. As we all arrive, meet and establish ourselves at the table, I do feel very welcome, greeted and enjoying the greetings.
And then we get to it. Everyone’s forthright, and everyone listens. They all know what they’re talking about and aren’t afraid to share it. Unhurried. Good stuff. Lots of Simons.
We’re in the dining hall that evening. It’s been an intense day. Folk have been asked to give of themselves, and the exercises we’ve been allocated have required reflecting upon our personal histories. It’s fuel for a morning’s work, and everyone is filled with a mutual admiration for the sensitivity and boldness that each individual brings. And the dignity with which we tell our stories. Sometimes poignant, often hilarious, I’m struck by the range of experiences and backgrounds that these exercises reveal. It removes a layer. It’s as genuine as it is disarming. I’m also quietly aware of a rising gratitude within. I’m sat with a lot of sharp and able people here. It’s a relief.
During the day, it’s mentioned that Tolkien’s study is across the quad. Merton College has immaculate gardens. He would have walked these very paths while Middle Earth took shape. Centuries of discovery and creativity, concentrated in one place. First computing machine? Invented here. Photography? The processes often still used today; developed (heh) here. And they knew each other, socialised, were good friends. Half the charm of this place is imagining the great and the good, possibly oblivious to the world, preoccupied with how to solve a problem in the lab, resolve a plot issue, contemplate an event in history that they’d have to deal with later in their life as a politician. No one hangs about here, things get done. We’re interrogating a value proposition; Expect more. I think about the many experiments, iterations and false starts Henry Fox Talbot must have made, on his way to perfecting the developing process. Relentless.
It’s been two intense but fun days. Later, I reflect upon how people work well together. Give them the tools, the lab, the study and the people to get on with what they do best and off they will go.